Last winter I was engaged in an intense battle of wits with a rat who hoped to carry off all my tulip bulbs. I had planted over a hundred tulips in November but, by early December, I noticed that nearly every bulb had been very precisely dug up and removed:
I put a trail camera in the allotment and caught the perpetrator red-handed, walking away with one of the few remaining bulbs:
Although by then it was late in the season, I did manage to buy forty more bulbs. After they were replanted, wire netting was pegged down over the bed:
I rather smugly supposed this would be the end of the matter but the rat had other ideas. It dug down at the edge of the wire by the rosemary bush and tunnelled up to each of this second batch of bulbs from below:
Although I was rather impressed with the rat and greatly admired its ingenuity, I also really like growing unusual varieties of tulip to cut and bring into the house in the spring.
This April we visited Pashley Manor’s tulip festival and a bulb supplier, Bloms Bulbs, had a marquee there to showcase their wares:
I asked if they had any suggestions for dealing with my rat conundrum. I was expecting them to recommend poisoning or trapping the rat but, instead, I was pleasantly surprised when they suggested rolling the bulbs in chilli before planting.
This November, full of optimism for the new chilli weapon in my armoury, I have again bought a hundred tulip bulbs:
I also purchased a kilogram of chilli powder:
As an additional measure, we decided to plant the bulbs in a raised bed which would be easier to net and would offer more protection to tunnelling in from the side:
Wearing rubber gloves, I dipped each bulb in water and then plopped it into the chilli bag before planting:
So, this year’s battle has now commenced and I await the rat’s next move with interest.
This autumn has been wet and stormy and the trail cameras have kept needing to come in to be dried out on the Aga. But they have managed to get some photos of all the five species of birds of prey that have been hunting in the meadows this season:
Winter-visiting birds have been arriving and appearing on the cameras:
A long term resident of the meadows is a handsome fox who was the mate of the One-eyed Vixen and over the years the pair have raised many cubs in the meadows.
This year, however, he has had an annus horribilis – we have lost the One-eyed Vixen and he is now a widower. But, as well as that, he has had mange all year. I tried to treat this twice earlier in the year but was unsuccessful. This autumn I have treated him again and am pleased to report that this time it has worked:
I am dedicating this blog post to my special father-in-law who died this week. Joining the RAF as a young man during the war and remaining with them for most of his career, he had a long and rich life, full of adventure. He was good company, a dispenser of amazing stories and very interested in the lives of other people. He was also a kind and lovely man.
November can be a difficult month so this year we decided that, rather than simply enduring it, we would celebrate it instead by going to France to witness a wildlife spectacle that happens there at this time of year. Lac du Der is in the Champagne region of France and, in November, thousands of common cranes gather at the lake before continuing their migration onwards towards Spain.
The weather forecast for the week was pretty awful so we packed all our waterproofs and warm clothes and got onto a ferry heading across The Channel. We were joining a Naturetrek holiday and the cranes were to be the grand finale of the week. The first part of the holiday was spent exploring the area around the Forêt d’Orient.
We arrived a day before the rest of the group and spent time exploring the region, including visiting Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where Charles de Gaulle lived and is buried. There is now a fantastic museum and a memorial to him there.
This sign propped up by the side of the road reminded us that hunting (la chasse) in France starts in September and goes on until the end of February and that we needed to take great care when walking in woodland.
A striking feature of this part of France is the amount of mistletoe growing on the trees:
Once we had joined up with the Naturetrek group, who had travelled to Paris on Eurostar and then been picked up in minibuses, the fifteen of us spent several days exploring the woodlands and lakes of the Forêt D’Orient along with our two guides.
By the end of the week, the group had seen around a hundred species of birds, some of them absolute corkers. Sadly, though, we did not see or hear the enormous black woodpecker although we did have several sightings of a middle-spotted woodpecker, a new species for us.
We also saw a lot of water pipit, another first:
It is always a delight to see little owls and a pair were spotted on a walk around one of the villages:
We saw three white-tailed sea eagles, although all at a great distance. This juvenile bird is next to a corvid to give it scale:
It takes seven years for the eagle to reach adulthood and only then does it get its white tail:
There were a very large number of great white egrets and grey herons living in and around the lakes:
There were also cattle egrets:
I found this next scene quite frankly amazing and stood mesmerised by it for ages:
The lakes are actually man-made reservoirs supplying water to Paris and are at their lowest levels at this time of year. I assume that a shoal of fish had become stranded in this little inlet causing this bird mayhem.
This dense black slick in the water was discovered to be hundreds and hundreds of coots and they stayed all together like this for the entire time we were watching them. This was very odd and I have no idea what was going on:
November is a great time to see fungal fruiting bodies and there were many of these to be seen in the forest. I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing when I found a small group of scarlet octopuses amongst the leaf litter:
One area of the forest is known for fire salamanders. The larval stage of these salamanders lives in water but the adults are to be found under logs by day, emerging at night to hunt for their invertebrate prey. We walked around the woodland, carefully turned over logs to see if we could find one of these salamanders:
At first we only found frogs under the logs. Although these look very much like our British common frogs, they are in fact a different species – they are agile frogs. These frogs can jump up to two metres in a single leap when escaping from predators
Eventually we got lucky and found a small fire salamander under a log:
Over the course of the week, we saw several Asian hornets flying around. We also spotted an abandoned Asian hornet nest five metres up a tree:
The week’s weather was very much better than had been forecast and we managed to spend a series of long days out in the field. Our picnic lunches were prepared by our two fantastic guides, Jason and Emilie Mitchell:
One afternoon we were shown round the medieval centre of Troyes by a city guide.
The building below was used as a local headquarters by the German army when they occupied the city during the war:
When the American Army arrived to liberate the city in 1944, the building was heavily machine-gunned and, spine chillingly, still bears those scars today:
On another afternoon, we had a tour of the cellars and bottling plant of the Drappier champagne house:
Drappier champagne is available in many sizes….
…including their largest bottle of all – a thirty litre melchisedech bottle. This bottle costs around six thousand euros and is very difficult to lift and pour but they do still sell several a year:
The tour ended with a champagne tasting. The champagne was very enjoyable – including the ‘nature’ type, where they add no sugar so that the champagne taste is pure and not masked by the extra sweetness. We bought a bottle of that as well. But the whole experience was made all the more memorable because we were joined by old Monsieur Drappier himself – now ninety-seven, he was the person who first started making champagne rather then red wine there back in 1947. He has now safely seen in seventy-seven harvests.
But now to finish with the cranes. Lac du Der is also a reservoir supplying Paris and the water levels are really low in November, exposing many islands and promontories for the cranes to safely roost on.
Three villages were drowned when the valley was dammed in 1974:
Common cranes breed in Russia and surrounding countries and then migrate along a straight line south-west to spend the winter in Spain. Lac du Der has become an important stop-over point along this route where they roost in the lake basin by night and fuel up on missed potatoes lying in the nearby fields by day. The number of cranes here is variable but on 3rd November 2019 there were a record 268,120 of them there. The global population of common crane is now 700,000 birds – this is gradually increasing as a result of changes in farming practices which now supplies them with an abundance of food during the winter and along their migration routes. I do so love a good news story.
The bird count a few days before we arrived at Lac du Der was 23,000 which was well short of the record, but there were still just so many cranes coming in to roost before dusk:
They are loud and vocal birds as they fly and the soundscape was all encompassing. We stood and watched in awe as group after group arrived and landed:
The juveniles, with brown rather than black, white and red heads, travel with their parents to be shown the way:
Although we had thought it a good idea when we booked this holiday months ago, as the time drew near and the weather and forecast were terrible, we were not looking forward to it at all. But in fact we had a wonderful week, surrounded by Frenchness, in a lovely group of people and seeing lots of things that we had never experienced before.
Now we need to have a think about what to do next November..
We are now nearing the end of the second year of our wood being a part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, administered by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species. For this we are collaborating with our neighbouring wood and together we have twenty acres of woodland through which fifty dormouse nest boxes are spread. Every month from April to November we tour the boxes to monitor any dormice found in them.
Dormice live in much lower population densities than many other rodents and, even in absolutely ideal habitat, there would only be one to four dormice per acre in the spring. However, come the autumn, their numbers are augmented by the year’s juveniles.
This weekend our trip round the fifty boxes took an exhausting five hours because there were seventeen nests to process. Although some of these nests were found to be empty, nine of the boxes did contain a total of fourteen dormice, all but one of them juveniles. Perhaps the inexperienced juveniles are more likely to use the boxes rather than building their own nests from scratch?
Both our neighbour and I are now nearing the end of our training to qualify for a dormouse disturbance licence. Over the last two years we have been accompanied on all our monitoring trips by a dormouse expert who has given up one of her precious days off every month to come and train us on a voluntary basis. It is an amazing and generous thing to do and we will definitely honour her commitment by ensuring that the dormice in our wood remain part of the monitoring programme for many years to come.
We spotted what we think must be a wild dormouse nest. It was three metres off the ground and was a complete and perfect sphere of about ten centimetres diameter, held in position by a tangle of black bryony:
The only concern is that moss has been used in its construction which is unexpected for dormice. However, I have checked with John and John, the bird ringers, and they confirm that this is not a birds nest – wrens would not build a nest out in the open like this and it is not long-tailed tits. Our best explanation, therefore, is that it was perhaps originally a cup-shaped mossy bird nest that has been adapted into a globe by dormice:
Box 10 had a family of dormice nesting in it earlier in the summer. This month, however, there was a pygmy shrew living in the box:
Box 28 had been badly chewed by squirrels and was sitting with its lid off. In fact many of the boxes in our wood have been damaged by squirrels and will need replacing over the winter when the dormice are hibernating down at ground level:
There is one more tour round the boxes in November but after that all the dormice should be tucked up for the winter down at ground level and we will begin again next spring.
In the past week a lot of rain has fallen as Storm Babet raged her way up the North Sea alongside the meadows. She was unusual in that it was several days before she blew herself out and, once she finally had, over 50mm of rain had fallen.
All this precipitation has softened the soil and finally allowed the worms to come up towards the surface and make casts:
This is very good news for the badgers, who will be trying to put on weight to get through the winter, and 70% of their diet is made up of worms.
This autumn two new raptor species are hunting in the meadows. A barn owl has been seen on this perch on three different nights now:
Here it is this week:
Barn owls can’t hunt in the wind and the rain because they cannot hear their prey over the noise of the weather and this week must have been really tough for them.
Before this autumn, buzzards were only ever occasionally seen flying over here, and always being mobbed by our resident corvids. But in the last few weeks a buzzard has arrived in the meadows to try its luck. We have been seeing it perched up and looking for prey:
One evening we disturbed it from its lookout point at the very top of our big pile of hay:
The buzzard then flew up into the trees along the cliff edge:
Buzzards are generalists and are prepared to eat a variety of prey – rodents, worms and other invertebrates, roadkill and also rabbits. Catching a live rabbit must be a challenge, but there are certainly many more rabbits than usual in the meadows this year.
As well as the buzzard, we have seen kestrels using the hay pile as a lookout and so we decided to get a camera up there:
A third of the second meadow has been left uncut and one of the reasons for this is to retain some seed heads to provide autumn and early winter food for the birds:
It has been lovely to see small flocks of goldfinch rising and falling over the meadow this week as they feed on the remaining wild carrot, knapweed and creeping thistle seeds. They also quite like the new feeders:
An owl has landed on the perch newly placed in the middle of the meadow but unfortunately the photo has been burnt out by too much infra red. I do think this is a tawny owl but it is difficult to be completely sure:
The camera doesn’t have very sophisticated infra red controls so I have instead covered some of it with gaffer tape as a low-tech solution to see if that works any better. Now we just need the owl back to test it:
Most invertebrates have disappeared from the meadows by this point of the year, but we do still have plenty of rosemary beetles in the allotment! The rosemary beetle, Chrysolina americana, is native to the Mediterranean region but arrived in the UK on imported herbs in 1963. They are now widespread, with both the larvae and the adults feeding on aromatic herbs such as lavender and rosemary in the UK’s gardens. They are things of great beauty:
I was pleased to see that even the Royal Horticultural Society agrees that these beetles do not eat enough to harm healthy plants and that they can be accepted as part of the biodiversity of a garden.
A photo from a different angle of the mating pair of beetles on our rosemary shows that the male beetle is carrying what I think must be mites on his undercarriage:
It’s been a very tempestuous week and the weather forecast foretells of a string of wet days to come. On top of that, British Summertime rather depressingly ends this weekend and the clocks go back. It’s time to pack away the T shirts and sandals and sort out the cold weather gear because winter is well on its way. But before it arrives, there are still a lot of autumn jobs left to do in the meadows – should it ever stop raining long enough for us to do them.
This week we once again launched ourselves onto the River Stour – this time in an underpowered electric boat in the company of an ecologist and ten other would-be beaver watchers. The boat left the Grove Ferry Inn as the sun was about to set:
Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve, containing the largest reed bed in the South East of England, is alongside the river here and 140 beavers are now thought to be living in the river and the reserve. This population of beavers doesn’t build dams because the only moving water is the River Stour itself and they would struggle to dam that. But they do build lodges and, as we gently putt-putted up the river into the setting sun, we went past a few of these:
But when the beaver family is only small, their home will be a simple tunnel in the river bank, leading to a dry cavern within the earth:
As the family expands, the beavers then start constructing a full lodge around the tunnel entrance as an extension to their living quarters.
We had gone on a similar beaver-watching jaunt last year and saw about eight beavers. This time, however, not a single one was seen, which was a particular disappointment for the couple who had come down from London especially for the trip and were staying the night in the Grove Ferry Inn. We did see lots of other things from the boat and the river is beautiful but I expect this was small compensation for them.
I’m still trying to get my head round quite how many beavers are now living along this stretch of the river. Here are a couple of photos we took on last year’s trip in the heavy dusk:
The Stour may have a lot of beavers these days, but sightings of otter there remain only very occasional. England nearly lost its otters in the 1960s and 70s as a result of hunting and pollution but thankfully they are now once more to be found in nearly every river system – but not really in the Stour yet and I wonder why this is? It is presumably not because of competition with the beavers who are vegetarian whereas otters eat fish. The river and reserve do have good numbers of water voles though and apparently mink are now trapped in the area to protect that population.
Autumn is a time of mellow fruitfulness and it is the luscious red berries of the hawthorn in particular that birds love to eat here in the meadows. This year has been an exceptional year for the hawthorn and the hedgerow trees are heavy with fruit:
I’m not sure I’ver ever seen the whitebeam trees looking like this either:
Yet there have been no elderberries at all this year and only very sparse spindle fruit so this strange year of weather hasn’t suited everything.
The pear tree in the orchard also has a lot of fruit. Foxes are partial to pears and I have got a camera on the tree to catch them red-handed:
Back in 2020 we got these extraordinary photos of the foxes climbing into the tree to get at the pears:
Maybe one year this will happen again.
The amount of rain that fell this summer meant that the meadow grasses grew long and rank and the annual cut was quite a challenge for our small tractor. However this job is now completed:
We always leave a proportion of the meadows uncut each year on a rotational basis to protect our invertebrate populations:
An enormous pile of cut grasses has been generated and we will now work at getting this away. A large proportion of it will slowly go out with the fortnightly Dover County Council green waste collections over the next year.
With the grasses now short, small rodents are more visible and birds of prey have been visiting to hunt them. We have put up a new perch with 360° vision of the cut meadow:
Within half an hour the kestrel was on the perch:
Magpies have also been using it. I know that Jays love the acorns of the holm oaks but I didn’t know that magpies ate them as well:
We don’t get squirrels in the meadows and so it was therefore surprising to see one on the old perch up by the feeding cages:
The barn owl has returned there for a second visit:
And there it goes, off into the night:
I have become familiar with tawny owls from the wood, but I don’t know very much about barn owls. We did get a chance to get up close to a captive-bred one when we went on a bird of prey photographic session last year:
This is a more normally-coloured barn owl:
I really hope that we continue to see barn owls here. They like a mixed farming habitat with agricultural fields along with copses of trees, rough grassland areas, ditches and well-managed field margins – the meadows and our immediate neighbours can provide all that for them.
Now that our building works are finally nearing completion, the builders have removed all their equipment from their compound that was in one corner of the first meadow. They had laid a membrane down there and put stones on it to provide hard standing but, now that this has all gone, we need to reseed.
There was much excitement amongst the bird ringers recently when a juvenile nuthatch was caught and ringed in the meadows – nuthatches aren’t seen this far east in Kent because English oaks don’t grow well on our thin chalky soils.
Was this young bird just passing through or is there a small, previously undiscovered population of nuthatches nearby – such as in Walmer Castle grounds where there are a few English oaks growing? I have now put up a peanut feeder that is visible from the kitchen window just in case I ever see a nuthatch on it – I am forever optimistic.
The wood, further west towards Canterbury and on different soil, does have oaks and nuthatches:
Back in the spring, green woodpeckers drilled a nest hole into a cherry tree in the wood:
Now the tree has produced resin in an attempt to seal and heal the wound and the hole looks very different. I find it pretty amazing that the tree responds like this:
I finish today with a weird and wonderful caterpillar photographed by my daughter at Battle in East Sussex:
This is the caterpillar of the pale tussock moth and what a most peculiar thing it is. It was wandering around on the ground because it was looking for somewhere to pupate and tuck itself away for the coming winter. With the weather having turned much colder this weekend, I can well empathise with that!
Several years ago we were attempting to get turtle doves to breed in the meadows. Supplementary seed was going down and a perch was banged in close to the feeding area in the hope that the doves would land there. Sadly a turtle dove is yet to be seen, but hundreds of birds do now alight on this perch every day. Admittedly these are often woodpigeon, magpies and house sparrows that don’t get the heart racing, but sometimes something rather wonderful happens. This is what has been seen on the perch over the last couple of weeks:
We have a camera on a hedgerow gate as well and this has had its own successes. As well as acting as a perch for birds, the top of the gate forms a motorway for small mammals moving along the hedgerow. This week there was a magpie who had caught a rodent:
But my most memorable sighting on the gate was a weasel last year, tracking the footsteps of its rodent prey:
A pair of substantial English oak logs sit out in the meadows, remnants of a beautiful old oak tree that was blown over in a storm when we lived back in Berkshire. It has been interesting to watch these logs as they have slowly started to break down over the years. This autumn, one of these logs has had lots on holes drilled into it, each with a fine tilth of discarded wood below:
Small black flying insects were coming and going from the holes, although it was tricky to get a good enough photograph to get an ID:
I did finally get some photographs of the insects from various angles – not very good but sufficient to tell that this is a colony of digger wasps, probably from the Crossocerus family, but there are many similar species that would need to go under a microscope to properly identify:
The female wasp will be digging a tunnel into the wood that will ultimately branch at its end. An egg is then laid into each branch and the tunnel packed with paralysed insect prey that she has caught and stung. The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the prey before pupating. The wasps will finally leave the tunnel once they are adults.
We found two juvenile dormice on the September tour around the thirty dormouse boxes in the wood.
We did also find some dormouse nests but these were empty. There will no doubt be dormouse litters being raised in the wood but that I think these will be in the woodcrete bird boxes that we didn’t check this time – unfortunately dormice seem to prefer these to the wooden dormouse boxes that we put up in order to monitor them.
Although we do have two barn owl nest boxes up in the wood, we have never seen a barn owl there. We have been seeing a lot of the tawnies though.There has been so little rain recently that they are coming to the ponds every night:
They have also been visiting the tawny nest box that they reared chicks in last year:
One day a tawny roosted in its entrance, much to the consternation of this jay:
Some other woodland animals that have been coming to the ponds:
I finish today with the sad news that the One-eyed Vixen has not been seen in the meadows for several weeks, and we presume she is now dead:
She and her mate have reigned as the Fox King and Queen of the meadows for several years and have together raised many cubs here.
It feels so odd that she is no longer waiting for me as I take the peanuts down at dusk. She was one of the meadows’ great characters and I shall miss her.
You definitely have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth when you holiday in the Lake District. Perhaps the wet and windy times only serve to make those magical good days all the more precious, but that’s something that is difficult to keep in mind when you are subjected to day after day of rain.
We certainly had a lot of tempestuous weather last week when we returned to Sunny Bank Chapel on the western shore of Coniston Water. Instead of the walking and canoeing that we had planned, we visited historic houses and museums instead – and there are thankfully quite a few of these in the Lake District. It was still an interesting and enjoyable holiday – just not the one that we had anticipated.
The week’s weather was so awful that we only managed two proper walks. The first was in the remote Duddon Valley which took us past the romantic ruins of Frith Hall:
Our second proper walk took us up into the beautiful mountains behind Coniston:
As we climbed, we noticed several sizeable areas on the flanks of the mountain where many sticks had been planted into the ground. More sticks were being taken down by quad bike to a group of people at work:
Stacks of thousands of sticks were still awaiting placement:
The quad bike driver told us that each stick marks where a tree is to be planted this autumn. In a few years time this part of the mountain should look very different – and with a much enhanced biodiversity and water-retaining capability as a result.
The Coniston mountains bear the scars of hundreds of years of copper mining, although all this industry ceased in the early 20th century.
One day we were able to make the most of a dry weather window and visit Humphrey Head, a limestone finger of land that sticks out into Morecambe Bay and is famed for its rare calcareous-loving plant life.
It is said that this is where the last wolf in England was killed in 1390. The wolf came down from the Coniston fells just to the north where it had been killing the sheep, and attacked a child in nearby Cark. The country folk chased it to the very end of Humphrey Head where it was killed with pikes as it hid amongst the rocks. I have such a clear picture of this whole event in my head that I feel emotional about it even though it was seven hundred years ago.
It wasn’t the right time of year to see the rare plants for which Humphrey Head is famed in botanical circles. We did, however, see this plant that we had never seen before:
It was not until our last morning that it was dry and calm enough to go out on a canoe adventure:
We were a bit shocked to see that the lake was about a metre higher than it had been when we arrived at the beginning of the week. How much rain had fallen to raise the level of such a large lake by a metre?
We had a very enjoyable paddle to Peel Island, over towards the far side of the lake.
On the way back there was a beautiful rainbow over the Coniston mountains…
…and it had begun to rain once more as we returned to the Sunny Bank boat house:
On a day that was forecast to have heavy rain throughout, we visited Levens Hall. This is an Elizabethan house built around a 13th Century Pele Tower, but what interested me was that it has the oldest topiary gardens in the world dating back to the 1690s.
On another day we had a walk around the gardens and estate of Sizergh Castle, now owned by the National Trust.
I love a vegetable garden:
The National Collections of four different types of fern are held at Sizergh:
The ferns were a dominant feature in the gardens:
I had no idea that there were so many different varieties of hart’s tongue fern:
As we walked around the estate, we saw this ram with a harness strapped to him that holds a coloured crayon. The ewes will be marked by the crayon as he mates with them so that the farmer knows which ones are yet to be done:
I see that it was Marrow Day yesterday at Underbarrow Village near Sizergh. I hope everyone enjoyed themselves and that it stayed dry:
It’s heart-warming to see that Cumbria Wildlife Trust is valuing the potential of churchyards with its Wildlife in Sacred Places project:
To fill another poor weather day we visited Townend in Troutbeck. This farm was owned by the Browne family for four hundred years before it passed to the National Trust in 1948.
We came across several of these traditional bank barns in the Lake District. Built on a slope, a ramp leads up to the first floor on one side. On the other side of the barn, where the land is lower, animals have access into the ground floor.
Townend was incredibly atmospheric, especially on such a dark, wet day. The smell of woodsmoke and the lighting kept low as if the house were still candlelit helped the imagination conjure up how life must have been.
One evening we had hired the badger-watching hide at RSPB Naddle Farm at Haweswater and we decided to get ourselves over the Kirkstone Pass and spend the day in the Penrith area, within easy reach of Haweswater for our scheduled 7pm arrival at the hide.
There had been a tremendous storm the day before and water was dramatically tumbling off the mountains:
We stopped at Brougham Castle, a 13th century castle built by the English to guard the old border with Scotland and now owned by English Heritage.
We also visited the impressive Mayburgh Henge but I’m afraid my photos just don’t do it justice. It is like an amphitheatre with a diameter of a hundred metres and with walls up to five metres high, built from millions of boulders from the nearby river. Thought to be about 4,500 years old, its significance to prehistoric people is not properly understood but, even today when it is slap bang next to the M6 motorway, it has a very special feel to it.
Long Meg and her daughters is another prehistoric wonder near Penrith and is the third widest stone circle in England with a diameter of 100 metres. Long Meg herself stands outside the circle and is made of local red sandstone whereas her daughters are granitic.
We had spent a very entertaining day exploring historic wonders around Penrith but we got a call from the RSPB telling us that access to the badger-watching hide was impossible after the storm of the night before. This was disappointing but we will try again and hope that for our next Lake District holiday we are a bit luckier with the weather.
Another earlier post about the Lake District – in a much drier September:
A few weeks ago we walked around our wood with Dan Tuson, Conservation Advisor for Natural England in East Kent. He works with farmers to restore biodiversity to their land and is now meeting up with wood owners as well to advise on woodland management that can enhance that work. We have also recently attended an interesting ‘Pollinators in Woodland’ zoom talk given by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The result of both of these is that we are now starting to establish some mini flower meadows in clearings within our wood.
We do already have one of these clearings. In the regenerating section of the wood there is a large glade where marjoram grows densely and which is filled with butterflies, bees, flies and bugs each summer.
Now into September, the marjoram flowers are going over. Once the seed fully ripens and goes black, we will be harvesting it to spread onto the ground in other areas of the wood.
Last winter we cleared this area below, which is quite close to the marjoram glade:
The sun is now hitting the woodland floor there but the understorey is yet to develop, so we raked the soil surface and scattered an Emorsgate native wild flower seed mix:
There is a third area that was coppiced two years ago and the undergrowth has now started to grow back. But some patches do still remain clear and we scattered foxglove and kidney vetch seed in these unvegetated sections:
The idea is to create insect-rich pockets within the trees, each an oasis for pollinators and boosting the biodiversity of the wood.
We are going to be working on some more coppicing this winter and will then again sow flower seed in the newly opened-up areas. I am really interested to see what this will all look like next year.
The wood definitely has an end-of-season air about it now. It was exciting to see a weasel on the cameras this week:
Across in the meadows, the bird ringers have once more put their nets up high in an attempt to catch linnets:
One of the ringers had caught a grasshopper warbler in the area a few days previously and so a grasshopper warbler net was also set up – a low one mostly hidden amongst the high grasses and with the distinctive song of the grasshopper warbler playing at one end. These birds sound very much like grasshoppers.
No linnet or grasshopper warbler was caught that morning, but they did get a large number of house sparrows. Sparrows are usually very good at avoiding the nets and they have never caught such numbers of them before:
Most of the sparrows were young birds and I was given a tutorial on post-juvenile feather moult. The moulting of the wing feathers begins at the point where the primaries meet the secondaries and works out from there in both directions. This bird below had five smart new primary wing feathers but the secondaries were still the old ones:
A lot of the sparrows had ticks on their heads:
I did some research on bird ticks and discovered that they are most likely to be engorged nymphs of the castor bean tick (Ixodes ricinus).
This is most probably a house sparrow in the beak of the magpie:
Most evenings we have been hearing tawny owls calling from a pine tree close to the house soon after dark – both a male and a female. They have also been appearing on this perch:
One night an owl sat on the perch for an hour and a half and did a lot of personal grooming:
Sparrowhawks are often being seen on the same perch:
I have cropped these next two photographs by exactly the same amount to give a true sense of the difference in scale. One morning a sparrowhawk was sitting on the perch:
But thirty seconds later it had been replaced by a much, much bigger bird:
We have seen buzzards flying above the meadows before but never before has one appeared on the trail cameras. I have put the two photos next to each other to compare the size:
There has been a marked increase in rabbit numbers here this year and I wonder if this has attracted the buzzard’s interest:
Our front lawn is once more covered in autumn ladies tresses, small and delicate orchids with tiny white flowers spiralling up the stem:
The builders have instructions not to tread on the lawn! They have been making progress on our new garage and utility room and the ‘shoulders down’ team have now returned to begin work on the landscaping around the new structures:
Back in February they built us a butterfly bank using the chalky soil dug out for the foundations of the new garage:
This week they have built us two more banks using more excess chalky soil as they start to clear up their builders compound prior to the completion of the project:
One of the new banks has broken roof tiles, another by-product of the build, as a core. The hope is that reptiles will burrow into the bank and hibernate amongst the crevices of the tiles:
Both of these new banks will be liberally spread with both native annual and perennial flower seed this autumn and should look fabulous next year as well as being a great asset for pollinators – we did spot the rare black mining bee visiting flowers on the original bank this summer. The curved slopes of the banks will also present a wide range of different aspects to the sun and will hopefully be used by a variety of invertebrates and other animals to dig burrows to nest and hibernate.
We have had visitors this week and we all went canoeing on the River Stour between Fordwich and Grove Ferry – a stretch of water where 140 beaver are now thought to live:
It is a beautiful and tranquil stretch of river, teeming with fish.
A trip on the Stour is an absolute must should you ever find yourself in East Kent.
Looking up into the skies this last week of August, you were much more likely to have seen dramatic dark cloudscapes than the longed-for blue vistas of the school summer holidays. But in the airspace above the meadows, there has been more to see than just the rainclouds. Over the course of several days, large numbers of black-headed gulls have been busy ‘anting’:
In late summer when the conditions are just right, winged queen and male ants emerge from the innumerable ant nests dotted about the meadows and take to the air to mate and disperse. The ant colonies act in synchrony and the sky above them becomes an insect-rich hunting ground for the gulls, who fly in small circles for hours making a distinctive ‘chipping’ sound. This gives us the warm sense of satisfaction that our meadow management is encouraging ants and helping to support a healthy ecosystem.
A large flock of linnets has gathered here which swarms up and down the hedgerows, the birds sometimes plunging down en masse to eat the seeds of the spent meadow flowers.
The throaty roar of a Spitfire’s Merlin engine is the sound of the summer here as these iconic planes fly along the White Cliffs. They have mostly been adapted to take a fare-paying passenger, who will have had to part with a very large fare indeed. Flying along with the heritage Spitfire is a modern plane, also with paying passengers onboard, taking photos of the Spitfire in flight:
But the most dramatic event of all in the skies was the unexpected flypast by the Red Arrows this week, flying in tight formation low across the meadows. It was spectacular but all happened so quickly that I failed to get a photo.
The bird ringers came again early one morning to see if they could catch and ring some of the flock of linnets that has been gathering. They also wanted to see if they could encourage some migrating warblers into their nets.
Sadly they didn’t get any linnets this time but they did get a good variety of warblers including this common whitethroat:
This young sparrow, still with some of its yellow gape remaining, had sweet little tufts of white feathers behind each eye:
Now that breeding is over for the year, a flock of house sparrows is once more coming down to the daily seed that is scattered onto the strip by the feeding cages:
These proceedings are regularly overseen by sparrowhawks sitting on a nearby perch:
I have never seen two sparrowhawks together before:
As well as the flying ants, another late summer phenomenon here is the constant background rasp of grasshoppers and crickets – the Orthoptera – that live amongst the grasses. We don’t know much about these animals but we do now know that great green bush-crickets live here, having seen a few this summer ..
There are also Roesels Bush-crickets here:
A wide variety of predators cash in on the late summer bonanza of Orthoptera in the meadows. The wasp spider is a bit of a grasshopper specialist:
She is a devastatingly successful hunter and there have been forlorn wrapped-up parcels of Orthoptera waiting in the wings of her web all week:
Birds also take grasshoppers and crickets although they must be quite difficult to eat with all that body armour they have:
In the wood, a cricket had drowned in a pond and was being feasted upon by pond skaters. I see that there are now juvenile pond skaters around:
Any rain cloud that may have hung threateningly above the meadows this week literally pales to insignificance when compared to this exact day three years ago:
British Bank Holiday weekends often fail to deliver!
Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, a few miles up the coast from the meadows, has been keeping ringing records since 1952. In all that time, a nuthatch has never been ringed or recovered there.
In the spring and summer nuthatches eat tree-dwelling insects and larvae but, in the autumn and winter, their diet changes to nuts and seeds. Their bill is strong enough to peck through hazel nuts but only once the nut has been wedged and held firm in the bark crevices of mature English oaks. Our thin and chalky soils in this Eastern part of Kent do not favour English oaks and consequently we do not get nuthatches here.
However, there was much excitement this week when a nuthatch was unexpectedly caught in the ringers’ nets in the meadows:
I was delighted to enter the nuthatch onto the meadow bird list at number ninety-seven.
John the bird ringer sent me some of his nuthatch photos. These two birds were ringed one summer in Tonbridge in West Kent where English oaks grow happily on wet clay soils. The drab juvenile is on the left and the smart adult on the right:
This next photo was taken in The Blean, the extensive woodland that surrounds Canterbury:
As I was reading up on nuthatches, I discovered two more things that I did not know about them. Firstly, that it is potentially possible to tell males from females in the field by the more intense red-brown colouration on the feathers around the legs of males:
Secondly, the collective noun for nuthatches is a booby. That just seems silly.
All this year I have been volunteering for English Heritage at nearby Walmer Castle, where there are over eight acres of garden and mature woodland:
There are many magnificent trees there, some of which are indeed English oaks. I just wonder if there is sufficient resource in the castle grounds to support a small population of nuthatches? Or perhaps the bird in the meadows this week was simply a dispersing juvenile that has wandered out of range.
There has been a lovely family of jays cavorting around the pond this week. These birds are famous for burying acorns of the English oak as a food store to see them through the winter. They do have a fantastic memory for where they put these acorns – but a few are inevitably forgotten and thus have effectively been planted by the birds. There are no English oaks here but Jays are also partial to the acorns of the evergreen holm oak and there are several of these trees in the meadows. One of the things we look forward to in the autumn is watching the jays as they raid our holm oaks.
Another prominent corvid in the meadows is the magpie and this year’s family are sticking together for now:
Moving on to a very much smaller bird, a wren spreads out its feathers in the sunshine:
It is thought that birds splay their feathers like this in the sun to warm the preen oil so that it moves more freely around their feathers. The increased feather temperature may also kill parasite eggs. I have also seen crows spread their feathers like this on the ground over ant nests, allowing the ants to crawl all over them and remove parasites from their feathers.
We are still seeing the ringed female kestrel around the meadows:
Now that it is late summer, linnets have arrived and there is a flock of about eighty flitting around the hedgerows. Yellowhammers are also still here:
The breeding season is well over for most of these birds, but love is still in the air for wood pigeons
Whilst out ragworting, Dave has found me a wasp spider web to photograph:
Just before posting this, I went up to have a final look at her web but unfortunately my approach caused yet another grasshopper to ping away from me and into her web. This did, however, mean that I got a photo that explains why she is able to wrap her prey up so quickly – it is not just a single thread of silk that comes out of her spinneret but many threads at the same time:
Before long, this spider will move a short distance from her web and spin a large cocoon in which her eggs will overwinter. These cocoons are very vulnerable to being destroyed by the tractor when the grass is cut but, now we know where she is, we will leave her section uncut. I would like to see wasp spiders next year as well.
There seem to be a lot of these Jersey tiger moths in the country this year. They are now resident along the south coast of Devon and Dorset although every year there is also an immigration of varying proportions across from Continental Europe:
Butterflies, hoverflies and bees are loving our new butterfly bank which was sown with native seed this spring:
This next photo was not good enough for identification, but the amazingly long, white-tipped ovipositor of this tiny wasp is one and a half times the length of her body. I suspect she might be sticking this into holes in trees to lay her eggs into caterpillars living within. The life cycle of invertebrates so often astounds me:
Just as it was getting dark one damp evening, I noticed this army of snails and slugs emerge from the drain and start out across the wall to commence their nightly assault on the hostas.
One of my daughters lives in the North Downs and she sent me this wonderful photo of a worm from her garden. I don’t know much about ants but these seem larger and more vigorous than any we have here:
A few photos taken at the woodland ponds this week:
I return to the meadows to finish today. The second wild parsnip patch has now been cut and removed before there was any chance of these thuggish plants setting seed. We have resolved to keep both of our wild parsnip areas cut short throughout next year:
The builders have been here for many months now as they construct a new garage and utility room. This week I thoroughly enjoyed myself building an insect and small mammal hotel using unwanted pallets, bricks and tiles from the project:
I hope this is just in time to be of use for hibernating animals this winter.
Natural England is making something rather wonderful happen here in East Kent. Dan Tuson, Conservation Adviser for Natural England, has been working with farmers in the area for many years to create flower-rich grasslands and restore biodiversity. There are now around a hundred farms involved in the East Kent Landscape Recovery Project with the aim of creating wildlife-rich landscapes hand-in-hand with food production.
This week we attended a green hay spreading demonstration since this is something of potential use in our own meadows to increase plant species diversity. The event was held at a local farm that has been working with Dan for a long time.
Of course the six acres of our meadows wouldn’t require such large machinery to be involved but many of the same concepts apply, just on a smaller scale. We have come away from the morning with a lot more knowledge and several ideas that we hope to put to good use.
In the nine years we have been here, the wildlife has largely left us alone and has not stung or bitten us, but this year, for the first time, I have been under attack from a little bug. I will feel a sharp pain on some bare skin, look down and find an innocent-looking small insect there. I had no idea what it was, but the next day the area will be swollen, red and very itchy. I lost patience and squashed one, bringing it in for identification – I definitely wanted to know what creature this was.
It is Campyloneura virgula, a predatory mirid bug. It lives on a range of trees throughout the UK but particularly hazel, oak and hawthorn and eats small insects such as aphids and red mites. What I don’t know is why it is biting humans, although I can see the mouthpart that it is drilling into me in this next photograph of its underside:
An interesting thing about Campyloneura virgula is that males are extremely rare, giving rise to the supposition that this species might reproduce parthenogenetically making males somewhat redundant.
Males are definitely needed in the world of dragonflies and damselflies, though.
Blue-tailed damselflies have also been very active down at the ponds this week:
Pond skaters are mating at the pond as well..
..as are gatekeeper butterflies in the hedgerows:
I have at last seen a brown argus in the meadows:
Last week I had seen a butterfly that looked really similar to this one from above, but the underwings had an extra spot that told me that it was in fact the brown form of a common blue:
The butterfly seen this week did not have this additional spot, so I can feel confident to record that a brown argus has finally been seen here this year:
Beautiful magpie moths are easily disturbed from the hedgerows at the moment:
A kite-tailed robberfly has caught itself a fly:
And this common candy-striped spider (Enoplognatha ovata) has ensnared an enormous meal in its rather insubstantial web:
I love this photo of this male sparrowhawk as a magpie approaches overhead:
It’s always a surprise to see how long a sparrowhawk’s wings are:
Here he is on another day and it’s just possible to see that he has caught a small bird on the ground. The feeding cages are one of his favourite places to hunt:
We haven’t seen kestrels much this summer so far, but this female has recently started to spend time here. She has had success with a vole:
I was delighted to see that she is the female that was ringed here in the meadows in September 2019:
This week she sat for a long time on the perch looking for voles until the dog came past and disturbed her:
A nice photo of a pair of our resident foxes:
The One-eyed Vixen’s mate is usually a most handsome animal but this year he has been suffering from mange. He has been treated but I have been scrutinising his recent photos to assess if his mange is getting any worse. Do I need to try again?
Now that it is August, John the bird ringer tells us that warblers have started moving south and they hope to put some ringing nets up in the meadows next week. He has also sent me some of his recent photos that were taken out and about in East Kent this summer:
I finish today with the wild parsnip area in the first meadow that has finally been cut, although there is still a similar-sized patch in the second meadow that needs sorting.
The grass has been so oppressively long this year that this cut area almost feels like a relief. But it has lent the meadows an autumnal air and, still in mid August as we are, I’m not sure that I’m ready for that. I have resolved afresh to really appreciate these last few weeks of summer before they are gone.